Ex-Wizards seize playoff opportunity

DALLAS – Spurs killer Josh Howard was miles away from the American Airlines Center, but he still managed to help the Mavs win Game 1.

To be more specific, the Mavs benefitted from the trade value of Howard’s expiring contract, which was the centerpiece of the package the Mavs sent to the cost-conscious Washington Wizards in the All-Star break blockbuster.

Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, the two big pieces that came to Dallas in the deal, played prominent roles in the Mavs’ 100-94 win Sunday night over the Spurs.

That, of course, doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Unlike the last time the Mavs made a splashy midseason move, there was little doubt that this deal would make the Mavs much better.

(Quick aside: Remember Tony Parker questioning the Jason Kidd deal? Seems kind of funny after Kidd stuffed the box score with 13 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and four steals.)

Back to the trade with the Wizards: The Dallas brass has been getting universal love since the day it went down. And it’s turned out even better than they expected, with the Mavs going 23-7 after the All-Star break, although Mark Cuban isn’t quite ready to declare the swap with the Wizards a raving success.

“Ask me in a few weeks,” Cuban said before watching Butler and Haywood make a convincing case in Game 1.

Butler seized Howard’s role from last season’s series against the Spurs. Howard benefited from double-teams on Dirk Nowitzki last spring, slashing for an efficient 19 points per game while the Mavs made quick work of the I-35 rivals. Butler forced San Antonio to think twice about doubling Dirk, providing a complementary scoring punch with 22 points.

Haywood only played 18 minutes, but he made the most of his time. He contributed 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting – all in the second quarter -- and six rebounds.

“Those guys were big,” Kidd said. “Caron set the tone by being aggressive and getting to the basket, and I thought Haywood was great, too. When he got the offensive rebound or we threw it into him, he finished.”

Added Haywood: “We just came in and took advantage of our opportunities. When you’ve got somebody like Dirk, that makes it easier.”

The ex-Wizards feel fortunate to get another taste of the postseason. Washington’s drama-filled season was doomed to lottery land when they got their get-out-of-jail free card in the form of the seven-player trade.

The Mavs were stuck in the mud until they got a much-needed infusion of toughness from the Washington refugees, a group that also includes defensive stopper DeShawn Stevenson. Now a playoff run seems like a real possibility for a team that seized the West’s second seed.

“This is what you live for,” Butler said. “I’ve been waiting on this opportunity. It’s a pleasure to be in this situation.”